Last summer, another Devil-Ette, The Spitfire, picked up a swell collection of pamphlets from the Alameda Flea Market. We shared a bus home from practice, and we spent one lovely ride home reading through selections from The Amy Vanderbilt Success Program For Women. Back in the 60s, it was apparently a book-of-the-month-like club in which women could receive said pamphlets in the mail, offering advice on outdoor entertaining, developing poise and confidence, home safety, etc. She was the Martha Stewart of her day, only she wasn’t a Jersey-born Polish Barnard graduate so much as a Vanderbilt.
The Spitfire gave me one of the pamphlets — “Organize Your Life” — as a surprise gift. Her advice, in most chapters, is quite useful, even today, but the beauty of it is in the presentation. Take this paragraph from the section called “Organize Your Possessions”:
Out with the Gimcracks
Are you one of those people who attracts unwanted gifts? If you have the kind of house everyone admires, you are often, I am sure, the unwilling recipient of house gifts that just do not belong in your house. Through a sense of guilt, do you display these things you don’t like? And are these objects the very ones the cleaning woman never manages to break? (But look at the crack in your Wedgwood pitcher.) There is such a thing as mistaken sentimentality. I am convinced that well-meaning friends go into gift shops and buy blindfolded just for the sake of bringing a gift to someone. When you receive such an inappropriate addition to your household, display it while the friend is present, then put it out of sight until her return… Soon it will be forgotten by everyone… In your annual, semi-annual or quarterly cleanings-out (and these should be a definite schedule) send that angel nightlight or automatic card shuffler or whatever to the always-grateful Salvation Army (and indicate a fair value for what you are giving, asking for a receipt for tax purposes). Try then to educate the constant givers among your friends… Your friends frequently pick up these little clues as to what will please you with relief, and you will be relieved, too, that they are no longer spending good money for what is, after all, in your eyes, trash — and embarrassing trash at that.
Miss Vanderbilt excels at many pursuits in her life and in this series, but she excels at nothing so much as giving permission to be a first-class snob. You’d think, though, that she would’ve had the foresight to give a wink and a nod to the cleaning woman to knock over the tasteless gimcrack, and hide the Wedgwood pitcher lest the woman’s sticky fingers abscond with the goods.
The brilliant point about this particular passage is that, later in the book, she recommends keeping a “present drawer” as a time-saver. Having so many delightful friends means so many parties, and a woman just simply doesn’t have the time to shop for a gift every single time, does she? So buy generic occasion cards, and a few well-tried gifts, and keep them in a drawer for easy access. It is my secret hope that she found one such generic gift on one of her trips to Salvation Army, and stayed up for several nights wondering which of her friends pitched the crystal-cut vase for tax purposes.
(By the way, I really do think the advice is great. In his book Storage: Get Organized, Terence Conran advises that the #1 item to purge is anything guilt-inducing. Especially in small spaces, you just can’t afford to keep all the stuff you have forever, so the “quarterly cleanings-out” are pretty well necessary. We have a charity bag or box always waiting in our closet for when we finally give up on anything, whether it’s clothes, an item we bought, or a gift. Stuff goes out, stuff comes in.)
My favorite passage in the pamphlet comes on page 50, only four pages from the end, in a section entitled “How Are You Organized for Emergencies?”
I hope that you have fire extinguishers in your house, but having them is not enough. They must be checked periodically. I think I am careful about this, but recently a kind gentleman fixing himself a drink at my bar came downstairs to the kitchen and said, “We are out of vodka and your fire extinguisher needs refilling.” Fire extinguishers are not forever. This man was kind enough to look before our regular check-up time came about.
She’s an excellent hostess, Miss Amy Vanderbilt, despite not being well-stocked in vodka. Was Miss Vanderbilt’s only reaction, “Why, thank you, sir, for telling me about the extinguisher; you may have saved our lives!”? Or might she have reacted the way I would have, which would have been to say, “How the fuck do you know the fire extinguisher is empty? And what happened to the vodka? WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY HOUSE, YOU DRUNK FUCK?” before pushing past him (fire extinguisher and empty Ketel bottle in each hand) to examine the vodka-sodden burn spot on my green shag carpet. Which is why, I suppose, I require the advice of The Amy Vanderbilt Success Program for Women.